The ‘game’ desperate Indians play for their shot at the American dream
HT speaks to Indians who took a circuitous route to enter the US at great expense; Central and South American countries appear to be the preferred route
It’s called a “game”, the “‘doo number’” way into America. It ends well for some, but for others, such as Gurpreet Singh Mahal, not so well.
One day in 2013, the farmer from Punjab who was in his mid-20s at the time, crossed into the United States at El Paso, a border city in Texas, at the end of a long, arduous and expensive journey through air and traversing countries and continents.
As he walked through a gate, which reminded him of one on Wagah Border that separates India and Pakistan, the endgame had seemed in sight: escape from a hard life on a family farm that could not be coaxed into producing more no matter how much was invested, and employment prospects were dim.
But that’s not what Mahal said to the US officials. He wanted asylum, he would tell them, as life was tough for him in India because of his support for Khalistan, a separate country demanded by secessionist Sikhs, and that he supported a party that championed that cause.
“Somewhat,” he said with some hesitation, when asked if really believed that. But he proceeded to rubbish it as something that has become a “zariya” (a ploy) to get to “stay” in the United States — “dhandha chal ra hai (it’s a racket). That’s “The Game”, he says. But it went badly for him.
“I spent nine months in a camp (possibly a detention centre),” Mahal said in an interview on the phone from Hoshiarpur, Punjab. And then he was deported, in 2014. On his return, he lost his India passport as well, suspended, as is the law for five years. “One more year left,” he added drily.
Many Indians who have reached the US illegally are languishing in federal detention facilities across the country. Many of them will seek, or have already sought, asylum. Some will be waved through — 483 Indians were granted asylum in 2014, the year Mahal was sent home, and in 2016, according to the most recent count made available by the United States.
The rest will go back. Like Mahal. He has since returned to his family business, farming, four years older but without regret or resentment. He spoke of his experience in an even voice, as he described with granularity the journey that started in 2013.
Mahal paid Rs 26.5 lakhs to an agent in Patiala for the journey to the US; and $7,000 to a lawyer to help him with the asylum request.
“We first flew to Dubai and then to Moscow in Russia,” Mahal said of the start of the journey. They never left the airport in both cities, which were layovers of four and six hours respectively.
From Moscow, came their big leap, across the Pacific to the Central American country of El Salvador, where Indians can get visa on arrival.
Central and South American countries appear to be the preferred route for Indians to reach the US illegally. Harpreet Singh, a Punjab man deported to India in May, had started his journey from Brazil, where he had flown from Delhi in 2016, as reported earlier by HT.
He then travelled north – on a journey charted and facilitated by his agent – through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, and Costa Rica. Singh’s next stops along the way up north were Honduras and Guatemala, where his trail merged with Mahal’s, establishing a pattern.
Ecuador in South America, which also allows Indians to apply and get visa on arrival, was the next destination on both routes. It wasn’t immediately clear why the group did not fly straight to Ecuador.
But Ecuador it was, to Quito, the capital. “Our documents said we were coming to Ecuador to research Maize cultivation,” Mahal said. The idea was to grant their stay a purpose other than what it was but not everyone was convinced, as it would soon become clear to the airlines they were hoping to catch a flight to their next destination.
“They refused to fly us because they had become suspicious,” said Mahal, offering, as explanation, that none of them were buying return tickets.
They were stuck, as a result, for more than two months in Quito, confined to an apartment rented by the agents, who had travelled with Mahal and their group but “did not accompany” them. They flew and stayed separately, but kept a close eye on their flock. About 25 people, he added, were already staying there. And then they got lucky. They reached Guatemala, a staging area for the most perilous part of the journey, when they transfer into the hands of smugglers and traffickers on a route that runs in the shadows in Mahal’s telling.
They stayed in Guatemala for about “three or four days”, then started for the border with Mexico, which is around 1,500 kilometers. The first parts were covered by a mix of buses and taxis, over two or three days, Mahal remembers. As they came close to the border, they went through “huts and shacks in the mountains”.
Now, Mahal says, the illegals were packed into the backs of pick-up trucks that were actually owned and run by Guatemala border police —10 to 12 men in each — which sped towards the border.
They were dropped off after a while and completed the rest of the journey on foot, which involved walking through a water body that had seemed like a river.
On the other side, they were put in large trucks and taken to some accommodations along the border before they headed out to Mexico City, the capital of Mexico. A two-floor apartment was waiting for them there. It was already teeming with about 25 people. A lot of Indians? “Some,” he said.
They stayed in Mexico City for over two months, which seems to have been the pattern. And one morning, they set off on the last leg of the long journey — accompanied by “Donkers”, Mahal said, adding it was a term locally used for smugglers and traffickers.
They travelled by bus or taxi in the day time and checked into a hotel at sundown. And were back up on the road the next morning. “Our journey was not as difficult as that of others who were taken on foot on roads and through forests,” he said, adding the difficulty of the of journey was a factor of how much you had paid.